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World Of Ashes

Book Three

With River’s MIA status threatening international stability, New Texas Secretary of State Aiden Stone joins the military envoy in Seattle to make his way to Athens on a diplomatic outreach mission. Unfortunately, River’s village isn’t the only settlement remaining in the area: Whidbey Island is still around, and they don’t take kindly to trespassers.

 

                              Prologue

Fourth Draft

Seattle, Washington

March 11, 2010

16:47

Aidan swung his fist around in a practiced hook and caught his opponent in the jaw; knocking him off his feet and onto the thick playground grass. His knuckles ached from the impact, but he resisted the urge to shake his hand; that would show a weakness Trent might try to exploit. Instead, Aidan loomed over the other boy, glaring down at him with challenge and disdain. Behind him, Eryn knelt on the grass, gasping and sobbing as she fumbled in the uncut carpet for her dropped inhaler. Her glasses were missing too, which was why she missed the small gray object a mere foot to her left.

“Any questions?” Aidan asked, keeping a careful ear on Eryn's breathing patterns. Below him, Trent scowled and wiped a line of blood from his chin. Aidan's punch must have cut the inside of Trent's mouth against his teeth.

Aidan took a menacing step forward, foot pulled back, and Trent shrunk away. Years of training and conditioning from his father had taught Aidan to never kick a downed man unless absolutely necessary, and in this case, it wasn't necessary. He wouldn't follow through with his veiled threat, but Trent didn't need to know that.

“Hitting me won't change anything; your sister's a pathetic crybaby.” Trent spat on the ground as he scrambled to his feet. Eryn's breathing hitched several times in succession. She still hadn't found her inhaler.

His sister's misery changed Aidan's mind about the necessity of kicking Trent while he was down. Unfortunately, Trent scrambled off before Aidan had the chance.

Aidan huffed and kicked the grass after the retreated boy, then turned to Eryn. She'd stopped searching and sat hunched over, clutching her trembling hands to her heaving chest. Eryn always panicked when frightened, and Aidan forced his clenched fists not to tremble with the need to punch Trent Savage a second time. And a third. And a twelfth.

Pushing the impulse aside, Aidan crossed to his panicking sister, scooping up her inhaler, though he couldn't see her glasses, and knelt in front of her. With the inhaler in his pocket, Aidan brought his hands together in a light clap, just loud enough to get Eryn's attention. She gasped, her eyes flying up. Two identical pairs of brown eyes locked, and Aidan smiled.

“Hey, Sprout.” He kept his voice soothing, not wanting to panic her further. “Can you breathe for me? Nice and slow?”

Eryn tried on her own, but her breathing, while a little deeper, was still fast and sharp. Aidan didn't correct her verbally. Instead, he took one of her cold, trembling hands and pressed it to his chest. He breathed.

In. Out. In. Out. Eryn's frantic breathing slowed, and her heavy wheezing became audible. Aidan's jaw clenched, maybe he could corner Trent at the skatepark tomorrow, but he banished the anger as soon as it flared. He didn't want Eryn to think he was mad at her.

“Here.” Aidan pulled the gray and blue inhaler from his pocket and held it for her as Eryn took a deep drag. She started to release the puff through her nose, so Aidan quickly pinched it shut. Eryn started but held the medication for another few seconds before releasing it slowly from her mouth. After a few deep breaths, her wheezing had somewhat abated, and Aidan had her take another puff.

“Better?” he asked, and Eryn nodded. “Good.”


He replaced the medication in his pocket and stood, brushing long bits of grass from his jeans. It was a stalling tactic as he tried to think of how to phrase his questions so they didn't sound like accusations. Eryn never responded well to being scolded or confrontation. Both tended to push her into anxiety attacks, which then triggered her asthma.

Aidan scrubbed a hand through his bronze-gold hair and glanced down at her with one eye. Eryn was sitting demurely; her head bowed with her hands clenched on her lap as she waited for his inevitable lecture. Rolling his eyes, Aidan let out an explosive sigh.

“Come on, Sprout.” Aidan scooped his little sister into his arms, and not for the first time, he frowned at her slight weight. She was only four years younger than him, but for as much as she weighed, she might as well be six rather than almost nine. Illness and malnutrition had taken a heavy toll on her since birth, and Aidan was again reminded how lucky they were that she was still alive.

“What made you follow me?” Aidan asked, keeping his voice low despite the simmering anger building in his stomach. Eryn knew better than to leave the house, especially during the spring when her allergies were at their peak.

But at the same time, he didn't need to ask: she hated being locked up. And it didn't help that, after starting classes at the University of Washington, Aidan was busy more often than not these days. Was it any wonder that Eryn would try to spend time with her beloved older brother, even if it meant getting sick again?

Eryn didn't respond as she wrapped herself around Aidan like a human octopus, her arms and legs winding about his neck and torso so tightly he could barely breathe himself. He didn't try to stop her; he just carried her home without another word. He did, however, hum a little. Eryn liked the sound of his voice, particularly his singing voice, and she would often refuse to sleep until he sang her the lullaby he wrote for her three years ago.

It was a stupid song, something he made up on the fly because Eryn had been ill and inconsolable. Mom had been sick too, having worked herself to exhaustion as she tried to care for their youngest brother Isaac, who had been five-months-old, in addition to running after Eryn's twin brother Jason, who delighted in getting himself into trouble. Add in Eryn's need for constant care and the fact that Dad was out of the country for two weeks with work, and was it any wonder Aidan had come home from school to find Mom passed out on the floor?

He had panicked, Aidan had only been nine at the time, but Dad said he'd rallied spectacularly by running next door to Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins. The middle-aged couple had long retired due to Mr. Jenkins' involvement in some social internet site he sold in his early twenties for a few million dollars. Not that Aidan knew that at the time; the couple hardly lived extravagant lives. He'd simply known that Mom and Mrs. Jenkins were friends, often playing Bunco together with a group of other moms in the neighborhood, and that Mr. Jenkins was almost always home.

Once assured that Mom would be fine—thanks to a home-visit from Mr. Jenkins' family doctor—and that his brothers would be equally fine with Mrs. Jenkins and her three girls, Aidan had turned his attentions to Eryn. She hadn't known what was going on, her bedroom door was always shut to keep the warmed air from her humidifier inside, but she'd heard the ruckus, and no one had responded to the incessant ringing of her bell.

When Aidan finally reached her, Eryn was curled up on her bedroom floor where she had tried to crawl her way to the door. She was sobbing and wheezing as she weakly rang the small brass bell Mom had given her to call for help. That was the first time Aidan had realized Eryn was small and light enough for him to pick up and carry as easily as he did baby Isaac.

Eryn sniffled against his neck, pulling Aidan back to the present, and he stopped in the middle of the empty sidewalk. He'd been rubbing absentminded circles on her back as he walked.

“I'm sorry...” Her voice was tiny—everything about Eryn was tiny—but he heard her. “I...I missed you...”

Aidan needed to get her home—who knew what allergens were wreaking havoc on her already weak immune system?—but he hesitated. She needed some assurances from him, and if he waited to talk to her until they got home, he'd lose his chance in the chaos that was sure to accompany Mom's frantic search for her missing daughter. Aidan sighed and sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, holding Eryn on his lap. She looked up at him and sniffled, her brown eyes wide and wet.

“I'm sorry, Sprout.” He chucked her chin with a tight smile before he stroked away her welling tears with his thumb. “I've been kind of selfish lately, huh?”

Eryn shook her head, cuddling into his chest. “No. I'm selfish for always wanting you around.” Her voice lowered as if she were revealing some shameful secret. “I...I just get lonely sometimes.”

Aidan winced. Of course, she was lonely; shut up in her room at all hours with only her books and television to keep her company. She couldn't even have stuffed animals or dolls because they attracted dust, mold, and other allergens that could send her into a fit. She had plastic curtains, for crying out loud! And all she asked—if she even asked for that—was for her big brother to sing to her before she fell asleep at night. When was the last time he'd done that?

The jingle of metal caught Aidan's attention, and he straightened. That sounded like a dog collar. Sure enough, a jogger was headed their way with a shaggy white dog running along beside him. Aidan scrambled to his feet and dug a plastic-wrapped handkerchief out of his pocket. Thank God for Mom.

“Put this on your face, Sprout,” Aidan said, walking briskly in an attempt to out-stretch the jogger and his dog. It wouldn't work, both man and beast were moving faster than Aidan could with his shorter legs and slower stride. What an idiot he was, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk like that. He stifled a groan.

“Danny?” Eryn asked, her voice muffled behind his newly unwrapped handkerchief. “You know I love you, right?”

Startled, Aidan looked down. Her brown eyes were watching him from over the top of the navy-blue cloth, and she was so worried, he couldn't help but laugh. Aidan moved off the sidewalk so the jogger could pass with his dog and took the opportunity to press a kiss to Eryn's short, bronze-gold hair.

“I know, Sprout. You love me better than anyone.”

“Good,” Eryn said as if there had ever been a question. She snuggled deeper into his arms, and once the dog was far enough away, Aidan stepped back onto the sidewalk. He did not, however, let Eryn remove the cloth.

Home wasn't far now, only half a block, and Aidan could already see the thrown open door. Isaac toddled around inside, his six-foot dog-runner keeping him from escaping like the little Houdini he was. Jason was on the front lawn, yelling Eryn's name at the top of his eight-year-old lungs. Aidan rolled his eyes. He was tempted to yell back, but he didn't want to hurt Eryn's ears.

A car pulled up beside them, slowing to a crawl, and Aidan turned to see Dad's frantic face behind the driver door's lowering window.

“You found her!” Dad's eyes raked over Eryn's tiny form. “Is she all right?”

“She had a good cry and a small attack,” Aidan returned, speaking over the SUV's engine. “But she's alright.”

Dad stopped the car anyway and threw it into park. Aidan didn't bother to argue as Dad climbed out and took Eryn into his arms, cradling her like a glass statue, to carry her home with long, purposeful strides without a care for the car he left parked half a block away. Things progressed as expected after that.

Mom sobbed uncontrollably once Eryn was in her arms, alternating between chastising and kissing her only daughter all over her emaciated cheeks. Once she was certain Eryn really was fine, Mom gave her a thorough bath before Dad took her back to her room and tucked her into bed. Dad would be the one to give her the 'things you can and can't do' lecture while Mom rushed to the kitchen to fix Eryn a bowl of chicken broth with a side of homemade applesauce—Granny Smith apples were the only fruit Eryn could have without being violently ill—and a tall glass of distilled water.

As expected, Eryn managed to down less than half of what she was given and even that little bit turned her pale skin green as she fought the need to vomit. They weren't entirely sure why, but Eryn's body treated nearly every kind of food as a malignant intruder. That's why she got most of her required nutrients from a nightly IV.

Aidan watched as his baby sister didn't so much as flinch as Dad hooked her to the IV drip. It always made Aidan shudder to think of the surgically implanted catheter port that was permanently embedded beneath his sister's flesh. Sure, it made her daily IVs much easier for everyone involved, but it was also a daily reminder of how lucky Eryn was to be alive. And how easily her luck could run out.

Dad sat with Eryn for over an hour, reading to her from The Bamboo Cutter and Other Japanese Tales—it seemed Eryn had moved on from her Greek binge after having finished the Iliad, the Odyssey, and most of Plato's Dialogues—until she began to visibly droop. Once he was sure Eryn was asleep, Dad slipped a marker in the glossy new book and set it on the stainless-steel nightstand before kissing Eryn's brow. He lingered, and Aidan could read the anguish in the lines on his face. Dad pulled back and flipped the light off before retreating.

Aidan slid into his room before Dad reached the hall. It wasn't that he was afraid of getting in trouble, it wasn't even nine and his bedtime was nine-thirty, but he didn't want to risk seeing Dad cry. Hearing Mom's quiet sobs as she settled the boys down for the night was bad enough.

Alone in the hall, Aidan crept from his room to Eryn's. Her door was right next to his, across the hall from Mom and Dad, though they still had a baby monitor in their room that connected them with Eryn.

Moonlight filtered into Eryn's room through the sheer plastic curtains on her window and fell across her steel-framed bed. The room smelled sterile as always, and Aidan was certain that Mom had spent most of her fretting time cleaning it for when Eryn came back. As expected, Eryn turned her head to watch him and the plastic cover beneath her stiff pillowcase crackled from the subtle shift.

“Hey, Sprout.”

Eryn forced a smile. “Hey.”

Aidan scrubbed a hand through his hair. It was still wet from his shower, and his pajamas were stiff and itchy from being washed with the same detergent Mom used on Eryn's bedsheets. How could she stand to sleep on those awful things? Someday, when she was better, Aidan would make sure she slept on the softest, sweetest smelling sheets in the world. It was the very least she deserved.

“Will...” Eryn paused and looked away, debating whether it was okay to ask. Aidan let her wrestle; she wanted it too badly to change her mind, but he still wanted her to ask. He wanted her to learn to be selfish. “Will you sing to me?”

Aidan smiled. “Of course, I will, Sprout.” He crossed the room to her bed and knelt at the side; he wasn't allowed to sit on it. Eryn snuggled down into her stiff, itchy sheets and waited. He cleared his throat to sing but his voice died when he spotted the handkerchief still clenched in her frail little fist.

His eyes watered but Aidan gritted his teeth and forced the tears away. He would not cry. He would not! He cleared his throat a second time and started to sing:

Wearily, the young one walks

an endless road at dusk.

Enticingly a brooklet talks

of feathered moss and elm trunks.


Now rest your head and have no fears,

though you feel lost and alone.

Quietly, the moonbeams steer

the restless traveler home.

Eryn smiled and sighed as she tugged the sheets up beneath her chin. Aidan smiled back but had to fight his furrowing brow so his smile wouldn't look sad.

In all honesty, Aidan hated this song. He didn't realize it three years ago, but now that he was in music theory and lyric studies classes, he couldn't help but feel like he was singing Eryn to her death. Dad said he didn't hear it, but Aidan was pretty sure that was a lie.


Blushing sky, gold and fair,

fades to indigo twilight

as the Milky Way lays silver stairs

into starlit skies at midnight.


Now rest your head and have no fears,

though you feel lost and alone.

Quietly, the moonbeams steer

the restless traveler home.

Mom felt the same way he did because she'd taken the same types of music classes in college. She didn't like being in the room when Aidan sang the song, and she never sang it when Eryn asked. That was probably why Eryn had stopped asking.

Sunset doubts bring sunrise hopes

on a sleepless night of daydreams.

These golden rays let all men know

the end is a new beginning.

Now rest your head and have no fears,

though you feel lost and alone.

Quietly, the moonbeams steer

the restless traveler home.

Eryn drifted off as he sang, her blinks becoming longer and heavier with every line until she released a contented sigh, a soft smile on her lips. When he finished the song, Aidan risked a kiss to her temple.

“Good night, Sprout,” he whispered to avoid waking her. Pushing to his feet, Aidan tapped her white noise machine and the gentle buzz of monotonous fuzz filled the sterile room to the brim. Eryn shifted at the sudden change, but she didn't wake.

Aidan left her room without a backward glance, closing the door carefully behind him. The rest of the house was quiet, though Aidan could hear the soft murmur of Mom and Dad's voices behind their closed door. He slipped by them without trouble and into his room before sliding between his soft, flannel sheets. Then, cradled by his mattress, Aidan buried his face into his plush, plastic-less pillow and cried.

 

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